Upon release, Borat (2006) was something of a cultural phenomenon. The film introduced the antics of Sacha Baron Cohen to a far wider audience and threatened to unleash (or re-unleash) a style of comedy predominately focused on tricking unsuspecting bystanders into being part of the action. It also proved to be probably the most quotable film since Anchorman (2004), and there was a time there you couldn’t go anywhere without copping someone’s annoying as shit Borat impersonation.
Unlike Anchorman, at least to my mind, the cultural impact of Borat seems to have waned a fair bit. Revisiting the film now, it is easy to see why. When it was released, I was right in the film’s target audience, being a male in my late teens. Even then, I found the film quite mean spirited and a little wary of what it was trying to achieve. Fast forward nine years and those concerns have well and truly crystallised. This is an awful film. The way that Baron Cohen interacts with (predominately) well-meaning regular people, comes off as profoundly mean. The film is also far less satirically biting than I recall too. Really, the only part that lands is Borat’s interaction with the horrific jocky college bros on a road trip. Baron Cohen intelligently paints them into a corner, exposing their shocking prejudice and typical ‘white dude’ outlook on life. You can almost hear them wailing that women run the world and that the social justice warriors are ruining their comic books and rape jokes. That sequence is immediately followed by the only other sequence that threatens to deliver a similarly biting punchline, when Borat visits an evangelical mega church. But in reality, the salient points made here really only come from the sheer insanity of the parishioners, not anything to do with Baron Cohen’s skill as a performer.
The major downfall of the film is that it never regularly achieves its goal of skewering American society. In that light, the film’s racism and misogyny becomes a little harder to ‘enjoy’. In fact, many of these aspects of the film (the portrayal of Kazakhstan for example) really add nothing to the supposed satire of the film. As horrible as all that is, the interactions that Baron Cohen has with members of the public leave me feeling the most uncomfortable. Most of the film is Borat annoying or triggering physical altercations with people going about their day. For every time that works and achieves a point, there are four or five examples of him harassing really quite sweet people, such as the driving instructor who goes totally out of his way to be polite and supportive of someone he thinks is new to the country. This same dude also totally subverts expectation when he launches an impassioned defence of women’s rights when fed lines you have to suspect were designed to elicit a different outcome. This is all the more frustrating as Sacha Baron Cohen is a distinctly skilled, not to mention ballsy, performer. He is just much more successful at displaying this skill in material that is not his own, Hugo (2011) and Talladega Nights (2006) the two examples that spring immediately to mind.
Verdict: Borat is less intelligent, satirical and funny than I recall. In fact, there is rather little of all three on display. It is an exceptionally mean spirited film too. To be clear though, that naked fight between Borat and his overweight, overhairy producer is still pretty funny. Schooner of Tooheys New
This started out as a pretty slow month watching wise. But a bout of sickness and getting Netflix toward the end of the month boosted my numbers. Even thought the quality looks relatively even on paper, I have to say overall it was a poor month. There is nothing here I downright loved, whilst quite a number of the ‘Not Worth Watching’ selections I utterly hated. Read on and share your thoughts in the comments below.
- The Master (2012), Paul Thomas Anderson – Only my second PTA film and I feel strangely ambivalent about this one actually. Anderson shoots in an old fashioned and expansive way, which surely looked amazing projected in 70mm. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is totally commanding and magnetic from the first glimpse. It’s easy to buy into him as a charismatic cult leader. The film is best when focusing on that character and the impact he has on his followers, as well as making the correlations with scientology more overt. Overall though, it didn’t quite come together as something I out and out loved.
- Atari: Game Over (2014), Zak Penn – Everyone knows the story of the T Atari cartridges buried in a desert landfill. It’s a strange decision to couple that story with a history of the early days of Atari and the video game industry. But in the end that history, the hedonism of the glory days & the role of the interactivity of early video games in ushering in the computer revolution, is actually very cool. In contrast the coverage of the attempted excavation of the cartridges feels pretty contrived. A fair celebration of geek culture overall though.
- Wyatt Cernac: Brooklyn (2014), Wyatt Cernac – For a stand-up special, this very Brooklyn-centric piece is quite funkily shot. The little puppet interludes are a lot of fun too. Initially I dug Cernac’s delivery style. But over time it starts to feel a little too smarmy. He’s all about pitter patter jokes rather than storytelling. It’s never too deep. But the reflections on being an African American male hit the funny bone a lot harder than the more domestic riffs on weddings and the like.
- The Good Wife Season 4 (2012), Robert & Michelle KIng – It’s not the best season, but this continues to be an ace show. A lot of the early part of the season gets bogged down in the storyline of Kalinda and her husband, which is confused and adds nothing to the overall show. Similarly, Cary is brought back into the fold but then barely seen. But a bunch of solid guest stars such as Amanda Peet and Cristina Ricci provide good performances whilst Alan Cummins is almost the star of the whole season in his ongoing role.
- Aziz Ansari Live in Madison Square Garden (2015), Aziz Ansari – I have become a huge fan of Ansari’s thanks to his work on Parks and Rec. He is a good storyteller as a stand-up, spitting jokes and seguing really smoothly between topics. He’s a relatively progressive dude as well and he interacts well with his audience. Apparently encores are a thing in comedy now.
- Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015), Tina Fey & Robert Carlock – This much hyped show started really slowly for me. But over the second half of the season it picks up a lot. It breezes by, though I felt like I missed something in the early episodes. There are a bunch of really fantastic performances which help to overcome scripting that falters pretty regularly. It’s often mildly amusing though, especially when it goes a little more farcical or absurdist. The way the show really finds its groove late in the season, means I will almost certainly be tuning in for next season.
- The Two Faces of January (2014), Hossein Amini – I’m a big fan of the three leads in this one. Kirsten Dunst is underrated and she proves it again here, flanked by Oscar Isaacs as a petty conman and Viggo as a big-time conman. It’s a very old fashioned and chatty film. Despite the characters being well set-up, it’s hard to care for the love triangle plot. A very picturesque slow burn that is really too slow with a story that is too simplistic for a thriller, as well as stakes that are never high enough. In the end it just feels tepid and lightweight.
- Insurgent (2015), Robert Schwentke – I quite liked the first in this series, but this is woeful. It’s totally incomprehensible if you haven’t seen the first in the last day. A script so bad it makes all of the really exceptional actors on board turn in really poor performances. It looks whack as well, so fake and awkwardly shot. A borderline inept film.
- Fast and Furious 7 (2015), James Wan – I have no idea why critical perception of these films has shifted. To me, they’re all awful and this is no different. Wan is brilliant, but he either can’t direct action or had his skills blunted by the studio. A baffling array of utterly illogical plot points culminates in a conclusion that is so loud, long and repetitive that you will be lulled to sleep. The script is frequently cringeworthy, which is a perfect complement to Vin Diesel’s performance. Credit where credit’s due, the tribute to Paul Walker the film ends on is absolutely pitch perfect. Look it up on Youtube rather than bothering with the film though.
- Elles (2011), Malgorzata Szumowska – I was hoping this would delve into some interesting issues, but all it delved into were the deepest depths of my sheer boredom. Juliette Binoche plays a journalist writing an article about student prostitution. I think she is meant to be challenged and changed by the experience. That doesn’t really come out onscreen though. About as tired and cliché a dramatic film experience as you could hope to have. None of that is helped by the erotic reminisces, flashback as exposition and attempts at sensual shots of food.
- 20,000 Days on Earth (2014), Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard – I just could not penetrate the veneer of wankiness and pretentiousness that seeped out of this doco. Perhaps Nick Cave is an artist that just doesn’t resonate with me. I know it is not solely his creative baby. But this feels so exceptionally self-indulgent it’s hard to imagine anyone but Cave himself enjoying it. Perhaps Cave fans would get a kick out of seeing him work and construct his music. Outside a couple of sequences of Cave chatting in his car to Ray Winstone or Kylie Minogue, nothing here pleased me at all.
- Frozen (2010), Adam Green – No not that one. This is a B movie with an awesome premise that is utterly, utterly wasted. Three totally annoying college students get stuck on a frigid chairlift overnight. Shattered bones poking out of legs, skin getting stuck to the frost laden poles and wolves ensue. Despite that sounding so exceptionally awesome, it is an unrelentingly suckful experience. Terribly forced and populated by three characters, all of whom happen to be morons.
If you only have time to watch one Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Avoid at all costs Frozen
There has been a steadily growing stream of low-budget Australian sci-fi over recent years, helping to complement our strong horror output. With streaming finally making some decent headway, that looks set to continue. That is the path that Infini (2015) has taken, with a streaming focused release, coupled with a few select cinema screenings, helping to get the film out there.
Infini takes a relatively old fashioned approach to the genre. Back story is conveyed via text onscreen, which actually functions quite well. Much better than if they had tried to flesh out the timeline more, which would have just stretched the budget too thin you suspect. The text states that in the 23rd century poverty is overwhelming, with the poor forced out of necessity to take low paying jobs and exceptionally dangerous jobs. Many are subjected to slipstreaming, which is a highly dangerous form of transport, that more or less looks like teleporting. This is all simple, but well constructed worldbuilding that allows the film to jump more or less straight into the action of the plot, after a brief moment lingering on the main character’s family life. The story that follows is a nice mishmash of common sci-fi elements, themes and sub-genres. There’s an isolated planet in deepest darkest (coldest) space, a rescue team and a crazy person. It’s very survival horror, with more than a dash of influence from zombie films too. The script does get a little scrappy in the final act when it tries to ramp up the delirium of the characters and the situation, but that is sort of saved by the unlikely element of sound design. The cacophony of voices in the heads of the characters does a much better job of conveying the descent into chaos that is taking place.
Visually, the filmmakers have done a really good job here. Nothing ever looks cheap and they manage to render a slick looking dystopian vision really well. It’s apparent that they’ve used a fair few ‘household’ style items (corrugated iron seems to feature a fair bit), which they manage to combine into sets that well and truly serve the purpose of the film, which is especially true on the isolated planet. Likewise the CGI is really good in the film, mainly because they don’t use that much, focusing more on practical effects. But when they do throw in a bit of CGI, generally to flesh out an expansive background, there are none of those distinctive cheap looking effects so common in sci-fi. Actually I barely even noticed the CGI at all, which is about the biggest compliment you can pay it. On the acting front, the film is populated with a relatively diverse cast and a bunch of Aussie character actors. Daniel MacPherson, best known for appearing on a fair few soapies out here is in the lead role and does it well. He has enough gravitas, at least in a genre sense, to buy into him as a hero. There is the odd patchy performance, but they thankfully never take you out of the film for too long.
Verdict: If old fashioned sci-fi is your thing, then the creative throwback style of Infini will be to your taste. There are patchy moments, but the loving manner in which traditional genre tropes are combined makes this a nice ride. If you’re still on the fence, it also contains the phrase “primordial ooze”, so 10,000 bonus points for that. Stubby of Reschs
Ex Machina (2015) is the far less hyped of the two films currently doing the rounds about looming artificial intelligence. But what it lacks in hype, it makes up for in smarts and is a much more satisfying and thought provoking experience than Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Less explosions and witty banter though.
The film is the directorial debut of accomplished novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland, he of 28 Days Later (2002), Sunshine (2007) and Dredd (2012) fame. It sees timid boffin Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) visiting the palatial home of the owner of the company he works for Nathan (Oscar Isaacs). Caleb is there to help the exceptionally clever and calculating Nathan test the proficiency of a new form of A.I. that he has developed. You can possibly hazard a guess at the intrigue that is to follow, thought that is not to say that it is predictable. There is a familiarity to it all coupled with an edge of intrigue as you can sense that perhaps you are not totally all over where this is headed. Garland’s script is chiefly responsible for this and it’s a very clever piece of work. There is a denseness to the scientific language that never feels too oblique or conversely jokey in its use of jargon. The script smartly guides the action and feels at times like a tightly crafted mystery almost rather than a sci-fi script. Its relatively talky, as most of the plot and themes come out in the conversations between Caleb and the feminine A.I. Ava. This includes the exploration of Ava as a sexual being, Caleb’s interest in that side of her as well as her fear of ‘death’. Interesting to see that last rather specific theme reappear so soon after Chappie (2015), which I thought (probably in the minority here), explored that pretty interestingly.
For a film by a first time director such as Garland, Ex Machina is remarkably assured. Perhaps it helps that he has been around sets so often and worked with so many maestros. It probably also helps that he wrote himself a darn good script. Despite the slow pace, there is an economy to the storytelling in the film. The first scene rapidly establishes the backstory to the film and quickly whisks the viewer off to the expansive ice covered and lush greenness of Nathan’s property. This economy never really leaves the film, with non-disclosure agreements, small chips in glass panels and much more conveying so much of the exposition that in the hands of a lesser filmmaker would be in the form of throwaway dialogue. Even the construction of the story is pretty bare bones. Alicia Vikander, as the A.I. Ava, joins Isaacs and Gleeson as the only three really key players in this story. Vikander is exceptional too, nailing that so close to human but not quite vibe that is so intrinsic to her character and the themes of the film. All three of the central performances are very good, Isaacs makes you believe in the brash, arrogant genius of Nathan whilst Gleeson, after initially overplaying the awkward overwhelmed geek aspect of Caleb, makes you really believe in the interactions between him and Ava. To see three skilled performers and have so much of the film’s success, both in terms of themes and buying into the plot, dependent on their skill is part of what makes Ex Machina so satisfying.
Verdict: If you like your sci-fi thoughtful and very smart, you will probably not be faced with a better choice at the cinema this year than Ex Machina. From what I’ve heard, Alex Garland is not all that keen to direct again after this one. Which is a shame, because if he keeps writing scripts with as much thematic depth and clarity as this one, he could have brought us a bunch more ace films. Pint of Kilkenny